Faces of the day

Lest we forget, today’s faces of the day will remind us. These are powerful images drawn by artists who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz themselves.

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The Nazis did all they could to make their Jewish captives faceless, dressing them in uniforms and tattooing them with numbers that would become their new identities.

In the midst of that horror — indeed, in perhaps the most horrific place a Jew could land at the time — prisoners sought to take their images back and made sure that art was still present.

Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish artist and political prisoner at Auschwitz, made portraits of fellow prisoners. Though the portraits portrayed prisoners of various nationalities and ages, they shared the same haunting quality, according to Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“The most interesting in these portraits are eyes — a very strange helplessness,” she says. “Prisoners created portraits because the desire to have an image was very strong.”

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Sieradzka believes Jaźwiecki made the portraits because he was aware they would one day become important historical documents. Almost every portrait features the subject’s prisoner number, which gives historians a name to attach to the pictures.

More than 100 of Jaźwiecki’s portraits are housed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, a memorial and museum at the site of the Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland. The gallery has more than 2,000 pieces of art created inside various Nazi camps or after the war.

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Through the years, Jaźwiecki is said to have hidden his portraits in his bed or in his clothes. The drawings managed to survive until he was liberated. After his death in 1946, his family donated his portraits to the museum.

One of the most important pieces in the museum collection is a sketchbook containing 22 pictures most likely drawn in 1943 by an unknown prisoner at Auschwitz. The sketchbook is the only artwork documenting extermination at Birkenau. The sketches were found in 1947, two years after liberation, near Birkenau’s crematoriums. They had been stuffed into a bottle and hidden in the foundations of one of the buildings.

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“Some would be surprised that art existed in a place like that, in a place with crematories, but art was especially needed here behind the barbed wire, because the art could save a part of their human dignity,” says Sieradzka. “The art was a hope for a better future. The art was escape from the brutal reality of the camp to another, better world.”

According to Sieradzka, Nazi SS officers commissioned some of the works. Artistically gifted prisoners made instructional drawings and models for the military.

SS soldiers also exploited the prisoners’ talents for private purposes, making them create portraits, landscapes, greeting cards and illustrations of German legends. Soldiers sent some of the art to their families or displayed it in the camp’s own gallery, the Lagermuseum.

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That museum also held items taken from those deported to the camp, including antiques, Jewish prayer books and garments.

For Sieradzka, the most valuable and important work is the art prisoners made at great risk — in secret.

“Prisoners couldn’t use materials from SS officers for private purposes. It was forbidden, but prisoners many times carried out illegal activity and used these materials for illegal artworks,” she says, “These paintings and drawings play a very important educational role as illustrative of what happened at Auschwitz.”

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Prisoners made art using whatever materials they could find — scraps of paper, baking paper, the backs of old letters. They made sculptures using bread and toothbrushes, says Sieradzka.

“The art was forbidden in Auschwitz so creating a drawing like that means risking torture, even death, however the art existed here almost from the beginning,” she says.

Jan Komski was a Polish Catholic arrested while crossing the border in attempt to reach the newly formed Polish Army in France. He had escaped Auschwitz once, but was rearrested in Krakow. After he was liberated, he immigrated to the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and worked for the Washington Post newspaper as an illustrator. Before he passed away in 2002, he painted works depicting daily life in the camp — scenes of barbarity at the hands of the SS and humanity and compassion between fellow prisoners.

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“Thanks to these artworks, we could also see Auschwitz and the camp in the eyes of prisoners. And this is very unique because we haven’t photos depicting everyday life of prisoners in the camp,” says Sieradzka.

Through these works, she says, we can see the truth about Auschwitz.

-CNN

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  • Whafe

    Great thread SB, such an important reminder of our history.

    Anyone whom has the opportunity to visit Europe, a visit to an ex concentration camp etc is a must do…

    A visit has the ability to render you speechless and covered in goosebumps, along with massive amounts of reflection for the freedom we have today, long may it continue….

  • Cadwallader

    To say these images are haunting is an understatement. I recall seeing the film “The Counterfeiters” a few years ago. The film recorded the life of a criminal counterfeiter who survived a concentration camp by firstly painting portraits of senior Nazis and latterly creating bank notes which earned he and his cohorts several privileges for the work. He ultimately suicided.

  • Nige.

    Haunting.

    What must have felt like to see there staring ay the corpses piled up, not only drawing but attempting to capture the moment.

    Why are the Jews punished so?

    Jealousy?

    • Aucky

      Who knows Nige. Anti-semitism seems to have begun in the Middle Ages. Neither the Romans nor the Egyptians were anti-Semitic on a purely religious basis, to them the Jews just represented a major threat to their authority and had to be dealt with. Anti-semitism must have started as the Jews dispersed across Europe and intermingled into largely uneducated, superstitious societies dominated by the Roman Catholic church.

    • Benoni

      The Jews are God’s chosen people. Every one who hate’s the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob hates his people as well. the list includes the Nazis, Islam, Communists, and modern left wing liberals.

      • Richard

        Bang on Benoni.

      • aero13

        And we forget or ignore this at our peril.

  • steve and monique

    Sad and haunting pictures. One race, or religion should never be allowed to dominate another on this level again.

    • Huia

      And yet here we are again, the Islamists trying to dominate and the liberals making excuses.
      Those drawings show the hopelessness in all of those eyes, those poor people.
      A great record to have though of how it was and how low mankind really can go.

  • Genevieve

    The gateway sign at Auschwitz says ‘Work will set you free’ , an absolutely monstrous lie told to the men, women and children who were imprisoned there.

  • ElZorrodePlata

    After the war, it was hoped that this kind of behaviour will never happen again. Look at Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, and some nasty dictators in the 3rd world, and it still happened despite the best efforts of the “moral” majority. Now, today, there are similar atrocities being played out in the name of a paedophile. Haven’t we learnt enough? Haven’t we as the “moral” majority given enough? How can we let this thing happen again?

  • pak

    A very poignant post which brought tears to my eyes. I do sometimes despair at the utter inhumanity some inflict on their fellow members of the human race. Holocaust victims risking death or torture for art 70 plus years ago, and here we are today cartoonists being slaughtered for their artistic expression. “Barbarity at the hands of the SS” and now barbarity at the hands of IS. At times it seems we have learnt so little and nothing has changed.

  • intelligentes candida diva

    Thank you SB for remembrring & reminding us with this poignant post and beautiful art.
    Keeping of history I think is crucial, though lets not forget the talent and perhaps an unwitting coping therapy for the artist. I get a sense of gentleness about the artist.
    There are two movies one being The boy in striped pyjamas based on a book by Irish novelist John Boyne and and Life is beautiful. Both moving stories.

    Lest we forget!

    • Benoni

      There is a Pulitzer prize winning graphic book called MAUS that is really good as well. My copy of that is one of my most prized books.

      Maus is a graphic novel completed in 1991 by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. It depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The book uses postmodern techniques—most strikingly in its depiction of races of humans as different kinds of animals, with Jews as mice, Germans as cats and non-Jewish Poles as pigs. Maus has been described as memoir, biography, history, fiction, autobiography, or a mix of genres. In 1992 it became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. ..wikipedia

  • Michael

    I have been in the has chamber at Auschwitz, there are fingernairil scratches on the wall from those killed in there. Being gassed was not a quick death, it typical took 30 minutes of choking before the strongest would die. Those at Birkenau who were not immediately killed were subjected to unimaginable treatment, I am not sure if I’d have preferred it to being gassed.

    6 million people were killed by the Nazis for political reasons in Nazi Germany. Never forget this to honour those who were killed so it can never happen again.

  • Wheninrome

    Mans inhumanity to man, – we all live in hope that each generation will be better, but as yet it has not come to pass.

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